x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UAE summer exodus: how to find savvy air deals when the heat rises

Personal finance: The seasonal expat exodus from the Emirates prompts many airlines to sharply increase their outbound fares. There are ways to work around this, but you have to be willing to do some planning.

Illustration by Lee McGorie / The National
Illustration by Lee McGorie / The National

The number of aircraft operating globally has entered a phase of unprecedented growth with the world's aircraft fleet set to double from 20,000 to more than 40,000 by 2032, according to global aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

More planes mean more passengers and the UAE is set to continue prospering as a vital aviation hub. Dubai International Airport ranks as the second busiest airport in the world in terms of international passengers, according to the Airports Council International (ACI). Abu Dhabi, also a major hub, was this month recognised as the "Best Airport for the Middle East Region" by the ACI.

Yet this prowess does not necessarily translate into cheaper ticket prices for UAE residents. Instead, the population actually pays premium rates for some flight routes. For someone living in Dubai, for example, it will cost significantly more to buy return tickets to London than the other way round, from London to Dubai. This has led many customers, particularly expatriates who regularly fly home, to carefully manage how they fly.

Briton Anne-Marie Rowlands, 34, a picture researcher who has lived in Dubai for four years, ensures her annual return home originates in the United Kingdom. "I book the UK to Dubai return but I have to plan in advance. It started after I missed my return leg to Dubai once, as I was ill and unable to fly. I then realised it was a lot cheaper flying the UK return rather than the Dubai return," she says.

The reason for the UAE's inflated prices rests upon the well-documented travel habits of its residents. The airlines know when an exodus of expatriates is going to occur and can exploit this with higher prices.

"There is an unapologetic posture that airlines maintain with seasonal price variances and summer price hikes are the bane of expats living in this region," says Guarav Sinha, the managing director of travel-focused creative agency Insignia.

"Traditionally, expats take their summer breaks to head home during school vacations and both short- and long-haul fares jump up to double or more as compared to other lean periods. Revenue managers have harnessed this demand hike to their advantage, and even if you try buying your tickets months ahead the rates still remain high, no early booking incentives are tabled. Even budget airlines seem to be on the same bandwagon. When flagship airlines use the demand hikes to their advantage then it also opens the door for other international airlines to do exactly the same, offering little or no respite for residents."

Extenuating factors such as fuel prices and government taxes often form part of the justification of such prices, but for the airlines it's a logical means for increasing revenues.

According to an Emirates spokesman: "Each market will have different demand periods or seasons, which will be reflected within the price of a flight ticket. This may lead to different pricing on the same route, depending where the journey starts. Other factors that influence pricing include competition, currencies, flight frequencies and connectivity."

But as Mr Sinha points out, UAE airlines have the added bonus of customers' loyalty, with many residents continuing to fly with them despite dramatic price fluctuations.

"Flagship airlines have cleverly entrenched their loyalty programmes into expat living, with co-branded credit cards that earn miles on shopping, compelling people to stick to their preferred airline brand," he says. "Ironically, few realise that you cannot really 'burn' those miles during the summer period as yield managers limit the inventory made available to the market during peak seasons or sectors."

The difficulties in securing more consistent pricing has led to a trend among savvy travellers to combine holidays with visits home to make savings.

Sarah Burnell, 35, a British freelance writer who has been based in Dubai for 10 years, consistently books her flights from the UK. "In January, I travelled from Birmingham to Dubai and I'll travel back with the return ticket in summer, so Dubai to Birmingham eight months later. That trip costs about Dh2,500. If I did it from Dubai, I'm looking at Dh4,500," she says.

"The best example of cost savings was when I got married," Mrs Burnell adds. "To fly Dubai-Manchester-Dubai was Dh4,000. But to fly Manchester-Dubai-Mauritius-Dubai-Manchester, spread over nine months, was Dh2,307. The honeymoon flight was free."

By purchasing return flights that go via Dubai, travellers can take advantage of the UAE's status as a global stopover hub. Mrs Burnell simply extended her Dubai stopover en route to Mauritius, to a much longer period than the usual long-haul holidaymaker, who only stays in the UAE for a few days.

These tariff quirks can be quite common and it can pay to look into "beyond destination" flights, says Alex McWhirter, a travel expert at Business Traveller magazine.

"Around two-thirds of passengers using Abu Dhabi and Dubai are travelling through, rather than to, these airports," he explains, "meaning that at certain times of the year it is cheaper to fly from London to India [via Dubai] than it is to fly simply from London to Dubai. Why? Because if Emirates, for example, as an indirect airline, wishes to participate in the UK-India market it must sell below the direct flight price, as few people wish to spend longer on a plane or at an airport then they have to."

Mr McWhirter adds that there are also examples where UAE residents can benefit from this competitive price manoeuvring between airlines.

"UAE residents booking business class US flights make big savings compared with their UK counterparts," he explains.

"For a working week trip departing in late June, British Airways will charge Londoners Dh26,082 for a return to New York. The same BA ticket bought in Dubai for flights to New York via London would cost Dh17,785. It's because Emirates flies Dubai-New York non-stop with a spacious A380, whereas BA does not only fly indirectly, it also operates B747s and B777s, which are less attractive for demanding business travellers. So BA must undercut Emirates' fare of Dh25,405 if it is to attract customers."

Historically, the International Air Transport Association controlled ticket prices worldwide and fares were adjusted in line with currency fluctuations. This was to ensure that no airline or country would have an advantage over another. In today's liberalised marketplace, airlines are free to set whatever price they choose. As such, it is simply supply and demand that dictates airline ticket pricing.

Joanne Foster, a public-relations director at Virgin Airlines, says: "Our pricing is consistent with other carriers but yes, often there are regional variations in flight costs. The reason for this is prices can differ between countries at different ends of a route because market conditions vary and because of changes in currency values over time."